The claims of calm deliberation emerging from the White House this week are maddening. The search for a new plan for Iraq seems to be taking place with as much urgency as the deliberations over a new color for the dollar bill.
In Baghdad yesterday, a suicide bomber killed at least 70 people, most of them Shiite laborers whose only sin was looking for work. In Washington, meanwhile, President Bush held a series of carefully stage-managed meetings with officials and outside experts whose common credential appeared to be their opposition to the recommendations of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group.
To top it off, White House aides told reporters that despite earlier promises of a pre-Christmas speech by Mr. Bush the country now should not expect any announcement of a new strategy until early next year. The president’s spokesman, Tony Snow, said that “it’s a complex business, and there are a lot of things to take into account,” adding that Mr. Bush “wants to make sure it’s done right.”
We are more than eager for this White House to finally get something right on Iraq. But we find it chilling to imagine that Mr. Bush and his advisers have only now begun a full policy review, months after Iraq plunged into civil war and years after experts began warning that the administration’s strategy was not working.
We would like to believe that the reason for delay is that some of Mr. Bush’s advisers have come up with a sensible change in course and they are now trying to persuade the president to take it. Or that behind the scenes Mr. Bush is already strong-arming Iraq’s leaders to rein in the sectarian militias and begin long-delayed national reconciliation talks.
We fear that a more likely explanation is that the president’s ever-divided policy advisers are still wrangling over the most basic decisions, while his political handlers are waiting for public enthusiasm for the Baker report to flag before Mr. Bush tries to explain why he won’t follow through on some of the report’s most important and reasonable suggestions like imposing a timetable on Iraqi leaders to make political compromises or face a withdrawal of American support. Or trying to persuade Iran and Syria to cease their meddling.
The Baker study, of course, is not the received wisdom of the ages. It should have been released far earlier, rather than being delayed to get past the midterm elections. But it was a good-faith effort by people wise enough and experienced enough to know how bad the situation really is in Iraq, and how little time left there is for the president to act.
Mr. Bush has no more time to waste on “listening tours” and photo ops. The nation is in a crisis, and Americans need to hear how he plans to unwind the chaos he has unleashed in Iraq. If the president is delaying because he is searching for a good option, he can stop. There are none. But Americans need to see that he is prepared to choose among the undesirable alternatives, and clear the way for a withdrawal of American troops that does not leave even more killing and mayhem behind.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company